as most probably know, Bethesda recently published a System Shock like game, which had been discussed some time ago in the forum.
After taking a closer look, I am wondering what we can learn for the development of SS3. I should note though that I just watched Let’s Plays and didn’t play myself. In the end, I didn’t choose to buy and play it for reasons I’ll detail below.
I think there are several areas where the Prey team did quite a good job, if not to say an outstanding one. These are in my opinion:
1. Immersiveness and realism:
I really like the possibility to interact with almost every object in a very realistic way, e.g., that you can drag complex objects like corpses around and how realistic it is when they fall from a distance. It even appears that the station is actional “drawn to scale”, which becomes apparent when you venture outside into space and move away or towards it. I was also impressed by the bodies and faces of corpses which almost look like real people. Overall it creates a great feeling of immersiveness and of “being there.” Great stuff!
2. Storyline and player’s choices
I generally like the story and especially the “what the hell is going on” moments, e.g. at the beginning. While the general plot elements aren’t entirely new, they still have some originality and are not easily predictable. It’s also interesting to see how player’s choices affect how the story progresses and lead to different endings (e.g. blow up the station vs. send a Nullwave etc.).
3. Voice acting
The voice acting is great and realistic.
We had the discussion here about skill points vs. solely technological character progression. The Neuromods (which are actually a kind of skill points) offer a way to introduce character development which is consistent with the Sci-Fi basis of the game. If you can only develop your character via tech you find (e.g. SS1), you have no player choice. Either you find the new targeting system or you don’t. The Neuromods offer a chance for the player to build his own unique character with its own strengths and weaknesses, while still being consistent with the game’s premise. I think that was a good idea in general.
But despite many positives, the game didn’t really convince me to a point where I would want to buy and play it myself.
So what is there not to like?
1. It’s not creepy enough
When I first saw the Typhon, I thought, OMG this is going to be like a horror movie. But the level design doesn’t help to create that feeling. When I played System Shock at night, I often did so with the lights in my room all on, because it was too creepy to play in the dark. I never had a similar feeling with Prey. Compare Prey’s levels with the dark and narrow corridors e.g. in the new System Shock reboot. Huge difference.
2. Combat sucks
There are no exciting weapons, enemies sometimes appear to be unresponsive. It doesn’t feel like combat is any fun at all. That was surprising given what Bethesda can obviously do (e.g. the new Doom).
3. Enemies are boring
The Typhon all look and behave rather similar and the only robots you fight are the “Operators” and the turrets. This is extremely disappointing. Further a well-developed character is invincible. At the end of the game, the enemies aren’t real enemies, they are just getting on your nerves.
4. Absence of a convincing villain
Actually there is not villain at all in the game. The Typhon are clearly “the enemy” but they don’t seem to have the central planning and intelligence to count as a real antagonist. They simply try to kill everyone on board, but they don’t actively “conspire” against the player or act in a concerted way to stop him/her from destroying them in the end. They are passive actors in the plot. Alex turns out to be on your side (somehow), and the station crew is, too. What comes closest to a malign power conspiring against the player is the impostor cook, but it’s only a minor plot element.
Compare that to being scared the whole time what Shodan might cook up next in System Shock.
5. Too many minor plot elements
Take SS1: It had a few big plot elements. Destroy the laser, jettison the groves, destroy the antennas, blow up the station, go to the bridge. Inside those there were minor elements (e.g. the GRAY resistors on the flight deck, exchange the relais, get the engineers head etc.). Prey on the other hand has dozens of minor elements that needed to beat the game. Some of it is cool, but I think it was overdone and sometimes the clear path in the game is missing.
6. Not enough “what the hell” moments
At the beginning after you realize your appartment is a simulation, I thought what the hell is going on? I thought it is going to be like in the 1997 movie “The Game” where you get absolutely confused about what’s real and what’s not and who is behind all of what happens. I expected the game to be totally ambiguous about reality and feeling like being a rat in a maze or in a cat and mouse game etc. Every wall, every room, every person could be an illusion…or not. The game does some of this and has some surprising things happening, but I think they don’t nearly exploit it as much as they could have.
Dialog with NPCs is a one way street. The player has no choices. It’s just the NPCs sending out. No chance to influence the discussions.
So what does this mean for System Shock 3?
I think System Shock 3 can do much better than Prey. We just have to take a look at the past. For instance, look at the new System Shock reboot to see how creepy a game really can be. Look at the old System Shock or a great variety of weapons and enemies and how they attack the player (+20 years ago!). Look at System Shock 2 for how to make a great and unpredictable story. Look at UW2 how to give the player options for interesting dialog.
Prey is an OK game, but I think they wasted an opportunity to make a really great game. The graphics and realism of Prey is impressive, but I would rather see a game that economizes a bit in this respect and gets the other things right.
When I look at the SS reboot and the team that’s involved here, I am hopeful this is exactly what SS3 is going to be like 8)